Does he say he twice as often as she? Women, men and language

Hvem sa hva? Kvinner, menn og språk” (English translation of the title: ”Who said what? Women, men and language”) by Helene Uri was published in Norway in 2018 and won the prestigious Brage Prize the same year. The book is about gender differences in language and language use, but it is just as much about the differential treatment and outright discrimination of primarily women, which most of the gender differences are a result of. The book is a mixed bag of observations, but still represents one of the best Scandinavian books on the topic.

Helene Uri cropped
Helene Uri

Helene Uri (b. 1964) is a Norwegian linguist and author. In her 2008 novel “De besste blant os” (English translation of the title: “The best of us”), she castigates the jealousy and competitive mentality among linguists at Oslo University. Uri holds a doctorate in linguistics from 1996 with a dissertation on aphasia. She was an associate professor at the university before she debuted as a full-time author. Her authorship includes both fiction and books on language and linguistics.

“Hvem sa hva?” is thus a mixture of linguistic investigations and observations, quotes from Facebook-dialogues with a focus group and anecdotes from the author’s own life. This makes the book entertaining and an easy read. There are many recognizable incidents from our common stereotypes about men and women, such as men who won’t ask for directions, men who dominate conversations at dinner parties without including their dinner partner – contrasted with women who more often ask and attempt to include their conversation partner in the conversation – often at the expense of saying something themselves. Women, who often are interested in talking about a problem, whereas the men are more focused on solutions and actions (p. 129).

The recognizability and the colloquial examples from focus groups and from Facebook all contribute to making the book an easy read, but occasionally this leaves the reader with the impression that a stricter editing process would have yielded an even better result.

For example, the fact that the board game Alias has apparently been released in a “women against men” version is deemed stereotypical on the basis of reading 5 randomly drawn cards from the game. Helene Uri writes: “I have no intention of reading 400 cards with 3200 words…” (p. 68), and it leaves the reader with the feeling that the example should just have been left out. It seems more like a filler. And there are many of its kind in “Hvem sa hva?”, especially in the first part of the book.

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On the other hand, there is plenty of value for money when Uri quotes some of the idiotic things that prominent (male) linguists have said about women far into the 20th century. Here, she showcases a complete lack of objectivity in their approach to the topic. Otto Jespersen’s book on phonetics is, according to Wikipedia, still regarded “a milestone in European language research”.

One can hope that it is more well-founded than his ideas on women. For example, in his 1941 book “Sproget. Barnet, Kvinden, Slægten” (English translation of the title: “Language. Children, Women and the Family”) he writes: “Punctuations isn’t women’s strong suit”. Or what about: “In women, words very often go in one ear and out the other again – or more precisely out the mouth”. Good Lord.

With Jespersen out of the way, we can establish that there are actually observable differences in the language use of women and men. For example, girls and women use more pragmatic particles such as “like”, “probably” or “maybe” (p. 100-101). The use of modifying particles has traditionally been viewed as a female sign of insecurity. Women wish to appear less opinionated, less offensive and less threatening. Uri proposes the alternative hypothesis that women are simply better language users, and that the higher frequency in modifying particles is a result of a more nuanced language. The argument is brilliant in my opinion, and it shows that you must observe a phenomenon from multiple viewpoints before drawing a conclusion on its meaning. Furthermore, the two arguments aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe women develop a nuanced language because they are insecure and want to avoid being seen as opinionated, offensive or threatening.

The second part of the book is about how men and women are normally talked about in writing and in speech. Uri’s claim is that word choice plays an important role, and thus words like “chairman” should be replaced by “leader” or an equivalent whenever possible. She backs the claim that words create worlds with a quote from George Orwell which is on point: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” (p. 213). Uri uses the word “rape culture” as an example and argues that it wasn’t until the introduction of this word that we began talking about rape as something, which does not just take place at the fringe of society, but occurs much more often than we had realised. Before the appearance of this word, we simply regarded it an exaggeration of society. Thus, sexual violence against women was actually taken seriously all of the sudden. I was myself tremendously provoked when I was first introduced to the idea that we live in a “rape culture”, but on second thoughts it forced me to consider how serious the problem is, and what we can do about it. The notion of “sexual harassment” has had the same effect according to Uri. The demarcation has caused “a certain behavior to go from an inevitable and unpleasant part of life – that’s just how it is – to a behavior that you don’t have to put up with” (p. 214).

Thus, Uri’s book positions itself in accordance with a tradition of discourse criticism, which seeks to change society by changing the way we talk about society. A major part of the book’s standpoint rests on a foundation of the work of authors like Robin Lakoff and Deborah Tannen, who have analyzed gender and power in speech, although Uri also evaluates her idols critically.

Uri outlines the distribution of male and female recipients of literary awards and finds, not surprisingly, that men are vastly overrepresented. The Brage Prize in non-fiction had, before Uri won it with her book, 83% male recipients (p. 243). The differential treatment among non-fiction authors could possibly be explained away with the difference in number of authors of each gender, but as Uri establishes, this type of skewing isn’t limited to awards. Even looking at word counts in texts, articles and books, there is systematic differential treatment of men and women. Among the 23 billion words of newspaper articles in the corpus of the Norwegian national library, the pronoun “han” (‘he’) is used three times as often as “hun” (‘she’) in the period between 1900 and 2013, and nothing points towards this changing drastically. Thus, it was also 3:1 in 2013 (p. 208). In works of fiction the situation is a bit better. Here, the distribution in 2013 was only 2:1 (p. 266). In other words, we still have a long way to go before men and women are portrayed equally in writing. Since women read more than men, the distribution should maybe even be in favor of women. According to Uri, the problem has its roots in the fact that women want to read about both men and women in works written by both men and women, whereas men only want to read about men in books written by male authors.

Women are also underrepresented as sources in the media. The media should, in other words, try harder to find more female sources. But the situation is more complicated than this. Uri quotes Deborah Tannen for pointing out that women avoid taking on expert roles in the media. In connection with this, Uri cites her own unease at coming forward as an expert in her time as a researcher, and she ponders how she herself referred inquiries from the media to colleagues who didn’t necessarily know more on the matter than she did. In other words, women should take responsibility themselves and dare to come forward, even if it means that they will come off as self-assured or offensive.

The book is far from self-assured. On the contrary, it is appropriately critical and self-critical of the cited investigations and the self-made alternative hypotheses that Uri brings to the market. Every time the reader gets the feeling that the author is in deep water with a claim, Uri turns it around and sheds a light on it from the opposite angle.

“Hvem sa hva?” is full of interesting observations, and it is without doubt one of the best books on gender and language use in a popular science format of Scandinavian origin.


This post was translated from Danish by Hannah Fedder Williams.

Mikkel Wallentin is a professor of cognitive science at Aarhus University. He is also the author of several scientific research articles on gender and language in the brain.

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